Elissa Nadworny

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Last week, Ayiana Davis Polen finally set foot on the campus of Spelman College — a historically Black liberal arts school for women in Atlanta. She's a freshman there but had started her college experience last fall taking classes from her bedroom in Puerto Rico.

Back then, she wasn't sure if it felt like college — but then again, she had nothing to compare it with.

President Biden has called reopening schools a "national emergency" and said he wants to see most K-12 schools in the United States open during his first 100 days in office, which would be between now and April.

Updated Jan. 21 at 3:10 p.m. ET

Following President Biden's executive action signed Wednesday, the Education Department extended pandemic relief for about 41 million federal student loan borrowers through Sept. 30.

"Too many Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities and to provide for their families," the Education Department said in a statement. "They should not be forced to choose between paying their student loans and putting food on the table."

In lieu of the crowds of spectators that fill the National Mall for a typical inauguration, this year the iconic stretch of land will be filled with nearly 200,000 flags, representing the thousands of people who cannot attend because of the coronavirus pandemic and tight security in the nation's capital.

Updated at 5:03 p.m. ET

The College Board announced on Tuesday that it will discontinue the optional essay component of the SAT and that it will no longer offer subject tests in U.S. history, languages and math, among other topics. The organization, which administers the college entrance exam in addition to several other tests, including Advanced Placement exams, will instead focus efforts on a new digital version of the SAT.

Last spring, the pandemic stole Maddie Harvey's job on campus in the Dean of Students office. She was finishing up her senior year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and without the income from her job, she wasn't going to have enough money to pay her upcoming tuition bill.

"It was definitely a very vulnerable situation that I was in," says Harvey, "it's not easy to talk about when you're struggling, especially knowing that so many people were struggling at one time."

In a speech praising educators, President-elect Joe Biden announced Miguel Cardona was a "real easy" choice to be the next secretary of education.

On Wednesday, Biden reiterated his focus on getting schools open amid the pandemic and touted Cardona's experience this fall balancing online and in-person learning in Connecticut, and getting students connected and outfitted with a device for learning. "That's the vision, resolve and initiative, that's all gonna help us contain this pandemic and reopen our schools safely," Biden said.

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Updated at 7:43 p.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Miguel Cardona, the head of Connecticut's public schools, to be his secretary of education.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Biden called Cardona a "lifelong champion of public education."

Cardona makes true on an early Biden promise to pick an education secretary who was a teacher: "A teacher. Promise," Biden told the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, back in July 2019.

U.S. lawmakers have announced an agreement on a handful of higher education measures that would provide meaningful help to marginalized students, students of color and many of the schools that serve them. The aid is part of a broad new set of legislation, meant to fund the federal government through fiscal year 2021. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the proposed changes this week.

All throughout high school, Brian Williams planned to go to college. But as the pandemic eroded the final moments of his senior year, the Stafford, Texas, student began to second-guess that plan.

"I'm terrible at online school," Williams says. He was barely interested in logging on for his final weeks of high school; being online for his first semester at Houston Community College felt unbearable.

"I know what works best for me, and doing stuff on the computer doesn't really stimulate me in the same way an actual class would."

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday that pandemic relief for about 41 million federal student loan borrowers will continue until Jan. 31.

Lately, Echo Fridley has had a raspy voice and a sore throat. Not from illness but from many hours on the phone talking with other students about quarantine and isolation, as a contact tracer at Syracuse University.

"I'm definitely super-overwhelmed," says Fridley, a junior studying public health and biology. "We've seen such an explosion of cases."

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When President-elect Joe Biden delivered his acceptance speech, he gave this shoutout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: For American educators, this is a great day for you all.

(CHEERING)

Sandy Kretschmer imagines her son Henry returning home from college, dropping his bags and then giving her a big hug. But she knows the reality of this homecoming may be a lot different.

"I'll probably have a mask on, and he'll have a mask on when I hug him," she says.

Henry plans to take a COVID-19 test a few days before he leaves Iowa State University where he's a junior, and he'll self-quarantine until he heads home to Chicago.

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With the eyes of the country upon him, Joe Biden shouted out education during his speech Saturday in Wilmington, Del: "For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You're going to have one of your own in the White House."

Of course, the president-elect was talking about his wife, Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She taught throughout Biden's two terms as vice president, and in a break with precedent, intends to continue as first lady.

Despite a legacy of low turnout, college students — and young people in general — could be a decisive voting bloc in this election. Already, nearly 5 million Americans, ages 18 to 29, have cast early votes, a far higher number than at this point in 2016.

But will this fall's pandemic campus experience upend optimistic projections for a college student turnout?

Twice a week, mathematics professor Andrea Bruder squats in the sewage tunnels below South Hall, a mostly freshman dorm at Colorado College. She wears head-to-toe protective gear and holds a plastic ladle in one hand and a to-go coffee cup in the other. Bruder hovers above an opening in a large metal pipe and patiently waits for a student to flush.

That flush will flood the pipes with just enough water to carry human waste down to her ladle, then to her coffee cup and eventually to a lab for processing.

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Of the colleges and universities that have chosen to hold classes in person this fall, most are not conducting widespread testing of their students for the coronavirus, an NPR analysis has found. With only weeks remaining before many of those schools plan to send students home for the end of the semester, the findings raise concerns that communities around the U.S. could be exposed to new outbreaks.

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The college admissions process has long been sold as a system of merit: Do well in school, write a killer essay, score well on the SAT, and you'll get in. Yet the recent nationwide scandal, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, laid bare just how much money, instead of aptitude, often drives admissions at elite colleges.

Enrollment at U.S. community colleges has dropped nearly 8% this fall, newly released figures show, part of an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment as students face a global pandemic and the worst economic recession in decades.

Often, enrollment in higher education spikes in times of high unemployment and recession as students seek additional job skills and postpone entering the workforce. But the pandemic has overturned those traditional calculations, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment.

Monday, Sept. 21, was supposed to mark the start of in-person classes for New York City's 1.1 million public school students. It was the only big-city district planning to start the school year in person. But with just four days to go, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that only the youngest students, in 3-K and Pre-K, and those with significant special needs, would be coming back on Sept. 21. The rest of the students will phase in by grade level between through Oct. 1.

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